Luke and I have been spending some of our free time trying to get to know our new community. So, last weekend, we went to the Lansing City Market with a friend of mine from college who was visiting her folks in Mason. My friend, Adrienne, is a great person to go to the farmer’s market with. She just loves produce, and loves to wander around and look at all the fruits and vegetables, and chat with the people selling their crops. She majored in natural resources in college, and has worked in outdoor education since then – she just knows a lot about plants, especially compared to this city girl. So, after we were about done shopping, we went to the center of the market where there is an outdoor area with displays of flowers and plants. The flowers were blooming, it was a beautiful day, so we spent some time wandering around and just enjoying the displays. Adrienne and her mom, who had joined us, would stop and say things to each other like “oh, did you see the ones over there” and they would use all the names for the plants, because they knew them. Of course, my level of appreciating flowers and plants is at the level of “I like the purple ones” or “I don’t like the spiky ones.” As much as I like the idea of gardening, I wouldn’t be very good at it – I just can’t tell any of the plants apart!
While this may be out of place here in the shadow of one of the best agricultural schools in the country, I am thankfully right at home in today’s Gospel story. On its face, the parable of “the wheat and the tares”, as our lesson is often called, seems to be about sorting things out – separating the good from the bad. But in the story, it is only the servants who want to separate out the weeds from the wheat, while it is the master of the garden who lets the weeds grow. Why would the master do that? Because tares are a particular kind of weed. Today they are known as darnel, and it still grows in the Mediterranean region. It is a particular nasty and poisonous weed. The roots of the weed tangle into whatever plant it grows with, so that as the parable says, pulling up the weeds would mean pulling up the good plant along with it. Even worse that that, it is very difficult to tell the young weeds apart from wheat until they are fully grown and the seeds have developed. The slaves in the story then reveal themselves as the unskilled laborers that they are. Despite their good intentions, their plan to gather the weeds would destroy the crops.
Even with two thousand years of experience, we are no more skilled at sorting out the weeds than these servants – and this parable comes around in the lectionary every three years to remind us of that fact. Have you noticed how our Gospel lessons for last week and this week have both included explanations of the parables? Now, Jesus doesn’t normally do that for us. Part of the gift of a parable is the layers of meaning available to us as we explore and interpret the stories and metaphors. But Jesus explains these to us – perhaps because today’s story so easily leads us into the temptation of casting those Other People – whoever that may be – into the starring role of the tares, and by doing so, we cast ourselves as the wrong character too – we make ourselves the one who sorts. But Jesus makes it very clear who the master gardener is – and it is not us. The job of judging the weeds, of gathering and sorting is reserved for Jesus, and for Jesus alone.
And, my friends, that is an absolute blessing! Really, none of us are quite as skilled in this area as we sometimes like to think. I am all too aware of the times when my own judgment – even with the best of intentions – has failed me. I am simply not always right about who or what will help me grow, and who or what will bring me down. And, I suspect, that I am not the only one here who can recall times of mistaken judgment and the inevitable problems that follow close behind.
So, Jesus gives us this parable – and its explanation – to show us a better way. We are to leave the sorting to God, because it is God’s job. And God cares so much about the wheat, that God allows the tares to grow right along with the wheat, rather than risk the potential crop. And what good news that is! We are in the hands of a loving God, who will not give up on us – even on those days, weeks or years when our lives look more like weeds instead of good grain. What would it look like if, in our efforts to imitators and followers of Jesus, we tried to imitate God’s patience and care, rather than God’s ability to judge?
So, here we are in the summer. And while the heat in here shows that I mean that quite literally, I also mean it in a spiritual sense. Seeds of all kinds have already been planted, and the springtime promise of new life has begun but not yet been fulfilled and the harvest has not yet come. Summer is the time for watering and feeding crops, and waiting for the harvest. Christians are forever living in these in-between times, tending the crops as best we can. And while there is plenty of work to be done as laborers in the fields, we still have a choice. We could spend our time and energy pulling up what seem to be the weeds in our fields – but in doing so we run the risk of destroying what might have turned out to be wheat. Instead, we could tend to and care for all that might become wheat. – even if this means doing our best to care for the plants that we think are harmful – because we could be wrong. And if some do grow up to be weeds, then so be it. A gardener far more skilled than ourselves will sort those failures out in the end.
Because when it comes down to it, our hope is not – and cannot ever – be in our own ability to sort the weeds and wheat, and the good from the bad. Writer Sarah Dylan Breuer comments that “The mature know that they are not the judge of the nations because they know the judge personally. It's Jesus. And we're not Jesus, as we know when we're following him.” We are invited – called – by this parable to do just that. To follow Jesus into the harvest, to devote our energies to helping the wheat thrive in the world, and to rest in the true hope – and the promise of Jesus – that God is in control of the harvest – the weeds, the wheat and everything in between.